I skipped the first story in this collection, “The Bees,” even though it is a story I count among the most memorable, original and surprising I’ve encountered. I’ve read it twice before–once in Carolyn Ferrell’s Halloween-themed workshop–and just couldn’t do it again. I started the book and thought, oh, I can’t subject myself to such sadness and misery and terror for a third time.
And then I read the next story. And the next. And the next. All twelve stories in the collection Stay Awake are heart-numbing and frightening. The characters in them have suffered loss–often of parents, spouses, children, often in combination–and many of them deal with their bleak circumstances by losing their minds. Sharpie writing appears on arms. Strange meaning is teased from notes left on dollar bills, in the footprints of pigeons–strange meaning that morphs, for this reader, into something like schizophrenia. A baby is born with two heads, a mother drowns her toddlers, a bereft man finds himself following a strange young woman into a perilous midnight situation (involving crack, no less). A father fails to murder his children in one dimension, succeeds in another, and the girls coexist with their dead selves, feeling the friction of the other path rubbing up against their own.
I often say in posts that I don’t read book reviews before writing about the books myself, but I think I should probably stop saying that because here I am again, admitting to having looked up a whole host of reviews before formulating this post. Something that surprised me is that I seemed to be in the minority thinking I was reading loosely linked stories, not just in terms of repeated themes, but in terms of the same actual characters and events being references in multiple stories, the stories existing explicitly in the same world. One reviewer was disconcerted by the repetition of jarring elements like a character losing his finger in a fall off a ladder in two different stories–I thought this was the same character while she did not. Characters hear about each other’s tragedies in the news or read about them in the paper–clearly the same world, clearly the same characters, I thought. The lost, bear-like widowed father we see in one story, through his point of view, seemed to be the scruffy, threatening single father in another story’s community college class. Even if all the details don’t match up, to me, it seemed that the reader wasn’t supposed to find coincidences in this book, but rather re-visitations. This was a truly disarming technique–a person the reader came to understand and sympathize with in one story became someone wholly different, even sinister, when viewed through the eyes of another character. I think this holds up even if the characters aren’t literally the same, but echoes of each other.
Something else that surprised me is that, in one story, a character receives mysterious phone calls from one member of his family that I felt sure was actually another member of the family–none of the articles I read pointed this out, but perhaps that was because they wanted to avoid spoilers, or didn’t think it was an essential detail to recap. I mention this because I want to hear from you. Was I extrapolating too much? When no one else said anything about it, I had the same feeling I did watching the finale of Mad Men–I was sure that Beth was pretending not to remember Pete so completely, but no one else quite seemed to think so. I can’t tell if I’m on to something or reading too hard.
I can’t say I loved any of the stories–admired them, sure, but they are too relentless to love–but one of the ones that came closest for me was a bit out of sync with the rest; it involved a woman who, after her daughter leaves for college, starts sleeping with her brain-damaged ex-husband. What a premise. The reader is as confused about the ethics of the situation as is the character.
The last story in the collection, one of the most chilling, has one of the best short story titles I think I’ve ever seen: “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands.” What?! That teaches a few lessons about setting a tone.
I definitely recommend this book, but I will say that the collection’s title isn’t kidding. This is a disturbing book and should not be read before bed.